Hazards banner
       Hazards special online report, July 2014
Scots map out a better route to safer, fairer workplaces
Imagine you could start from scratch and design a just and effective workplace health and safety regulatory regime. As the Scottish independence referendum looms, Stirling University’s Professor Andy Watterson and colleagues are doing just that.

Britain’s health and safety system is broken. Tens of thousands of workers are made ill or killed by their jobs each year, yet only a few hundred of the negligent employers responsible are called to account. For most of those damaged by their work, they can expect neither justice nor compensation. 

ENFORCEMENT DISASTER In the decade since the Stockline factory blast killed nine workers, official workplace safety inspections have plummeted and the Westminster government has slashed the Health and Safety Executive’s budget and pulled its teeth [more]

For Scots, the consequences have been particularly damaging. Scotland has a far higher fatal and major injury rate per 100,000 employees (83.4) than England (77.5). 

In 2012/13 there were 22 fatalities, 1,843 major workplace injuries and 4,853 over seven day injuries recorded. Yet just 23 cases were prosecuted where HSE was the enforcing authority and only 21 resulted in convictions. Fines averaged £17,947 per offence. Local authorities prosecuted just four cases, all successfully, securing fines of £15,775 per offence. 

Courtesy of deregulation-obsessed Westminster lawmakers, this is a bad situation about to get worse. UK safety minister Mike Penning has ordered the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to “commercialise”. The advert for the £160,000 post of HSE chief executive mentions three times that the post holder will be expected to make the HSE more commercial, it fails to mention the importance of improving worker safety. 

In the advertisement for the two HSE board positions currently up for grabs – one formerly a ‘public interest’ position – the Cabinet Office says the government is “especially looking” for “Commercial acumen: understanding and developing value from marketable aspects of an organisation’s services, whilst protecting the core purpose of the organisation.”

The official UK regulator, which has neither an occupational health director nor any discernable occupational health direction, does now have a commercial director

A new direction

On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland will vote in an independence referendum

The result could go either way, but the issue has focused the attention of trades unionists and safety campaigners north of the border on what working life might look like if workplace health and safety – currently a ‘reserved’ policy issue directed from Westminster by a government hostile to both employment and safety rights – was in hands that gave a hoot about saving lives.

SAFETY POINTERS  Scotland could be a much safer and healthier place to work if it created its own improved, accountable and preventive system to regulate workplace safety, according to Stirling University’s Professor Andy Watterson. [more]

The Westminster government’s vanishingly light touch approach on safety is not evidence-based, at least if your objective is to improve the health and safety of the workforce and benefit the economy at the same time (See: Toxic record, Hazards 126). 

Our research has established that an independent Scotland could deliver quickly the practicable, proven and cost-effective measures necessary to reform Scottish occupational health and safety and reverse the erosion of workplace protection imposed by Whitehall.

Our March 2014 report, Occupational Health and Safety in Scotland: an opportunity to improve work environments for all, provides a route map to a health and safety system where securing improved health and safety at work is the prime purpose. 

Productive approach

Good models – far better than the UK’s and wholly feasible for an independent Scotland – already exist in Nordic countries. Unlike the HSE, in Norway, Finland and Denmark there are still agencies that have not been so run ragged and run down by deregulatory attacks that they barely work at all. 

GOING BACKWARDS  In the decade since an explosion destroyed the Stockline factory in Glasgow and killed nine workers, official workplace safety inspections have plummeted as David Cameron’s UK government turned its back on safety, slashing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) budget and staffing, and pulling the regulator’s teeth.

Scandinavian countries with many high hazard industries employ a ‘work environment management concept’ that places health and safety on an equal footing with quality and environmental protection. The trade union contribution to health and safety is perceived as positive. The Scandinavian concept avoided strong influences from lean production, business process re-engineering and balanced score cards. 

Scotland does not have to re-invent the wheel. It can draw on a labour inspectorate approach addressing issues neglected in the UK and joined up with a better resourced occupational health system. 

Denmark, for example, strengthened work on job stress prevention and launched a national strategy including increased inspections by the Danish Working Environment Authority (DWEA) aimed at assessing health and safety risks concerning job stress and job-related violence. The Nordic system shows the most productive economies are also the best regulated. Norway, for example, has world-leading productivity levels, lower working hours and high occupational safety standards. 

You don’t have to grind down your workforce to be economically successful, a lesson to which the Westminster government appears constitutionally blind.

Scotland needs its own fresh, independent approach to deliver a high class, high productivity economy and that means supporting responsible employers with a well-resourced and visible regulatory system, while keeping the workforce happy and healthy.

Scotland has a unique opportunity, following the referendum and whatever the result – but especially if there is a ‘Yes’ vote – to significantly improve worker health and safety. This requires a Scottish government committed to addressing democratic deficits and workplace health inequalities through the creation of a transparent, well- resourced and staffed – and accountable – Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Administration (SOHSA). 

SOHSA would not only talk about good governance but practice it. It would establish a labour inspectorate that deals effectively with hazards and risks in the workplace and the wider employment conditions – including working hours and patterns, job insecurity, punitive sickness absence and performance management policies, discrimination and victimisation – inextricably linked to health and safety. 
This should be integrated with effective government occupational health services, information and advice centres located across the country for workers and
employers and effective regulation, inspection and enforcement. 

With such a structure and service in place, Scottish workers will be sure of much healthier and safer working conditions.

Occupational health and safety in Scotland: An opportunity to improve work environments for all. Andrew Watterson, Rory O’Neill, Tommy Gorman, Jim McCourt, Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, University of Stirling, Scotland.

A safe view from Scotland

Law enforcement  A Scottish Work Environment Act is needed to create a properly funded and staffed Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Agency (SOHSA), geared to prevention policies and practice, containing a proper occupational health department,  and accountable to a representative board of employers, employees, trade unions and citizens’ groups. 

Regulatory rethink  Robust regulation and enforcement covering work and the wider environments is necessary, not the diluted ‘better’, ‘smart’, ‘soft’ or ‘responsive’ regimes imposed by Westminster that fail to make public health the first priority. Adoption of the Inquiries into Deaths (Scotland) Bill now before the Scottish Parliament would also be welcome.

Labour rights  A well-resourced Labour inspectorate, within SOHSA, and along the lines of the Nordic model, would advise, inform, inspect and regulate workplaces on occupational health and safety and the employment conditions that impact on worker health, safety and welfare, and would have legal rights of entry to all workplaces.

Preventive role  SOHSA would apply the precautionary principle in development of its policies, strategies and best practice. It would for example use the most internationally up-to-date prescribed occupational disease lists, toxics use reduction approaches and interventions to control job-related stress. There would be reporting hotlines, support and protection for whistleblowers. 

Proper participation  Innovative methods of workplace and community participation should include union safety reps with rights to enter workplaces to investigate health and safety concerns and to issue provisional improvement notices, ‘roving’ union safety reps and employment rights’ reps with a regional role, and community environmental monitors linked with citizen science projects.

Community input  Citizen groups are needed because workplace hazards such as open cast mining, mining, fracking and coal-bed methane extraction may also become community hazards. 

Joined up enforcement  Bodies such as SOHSA and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Health Protection Agency (Scotland) or their successors should be transparent and accountable to the communities they cover and answerable to the Scottish parliament. 

Independent advice  There should be worker and community health and safety centres across Scotland to advise on prevention and detection of disease and injury and to provide support for victims. 



A decade from disaster

Nine people died in the 11 May 2004 blast at the Stockline plastics factory and 33 others were badly injured. A build-up of leaking gas from corroded underground pipes was blamed for the disaster, which provoked a countrywide pipe replacement programme and led to questions about the effectiveness of official workplace safety enforcement (Hazards 100).

A public inquiry concluded in 2009 the tragic event was an “avoidable disaster”, with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) admitting its “serious failings” were a contributory factor. 

Marie Murray, who lost her husband Kenny, said the families have paid an “immeasurable” price that has gone well beyond the £200,000 that ICL Plastics Ltd and subsidiary ICL Tech Ltd were each fined in 2007.

A memorial service at Maryhill Community Central Halls was held on the catastrophe’s 10th anniversary, close to the former factory site. Mrs Murray said: “Kenny left the house to go to work and never returned. You hear about this happening to other families but that day it happened to ours.” 

She added: “You cannot lose somebody like him without it being felt throughout the extended family and it is a loss we have to suffer every day, even now, 10 years later.” 

Grahame Smith, general secretary of STUC, the union organisation that has supported the families throughout, said: “It is hard to believe that it is 10 years since this tragedy occurred, an event that would forever change the lives of the nine families who lost loved ones and those left impaired by their injuries.” 

The March 2014 Stirling University report, Occupational health in Scotland, warned that lessons of the Stockline disaster had not been learned, adding regulatory processes were still flawed and were being further damaged by the government’s ‘obsession’ with deregulation.

ICL/Stockline disaster website.

Back to the top




Search Hazards

What if...?

Imagine you could start from scratch and design a just and effective workplace health and safety regulatory regime. As the Scottish independence referendum looms, Stirling University’s Professor Andy Watterson and colleagues are doing just that.

Related stories
A decade from disaster

Hazards webpages
Vote to die
Deadly business
We love red tape facebook page